As the 400-year celebration of the Pilgrim landing in Plymouth approaches, plenty of groups and individuals are already preparing, as this article illustrates. It looks like Dr. Turner, a historian of religion at George Mason, will be focusing his book more on the religious and historical aspects of the Pilgrim story. I’m in good company, as expected, but that also means the pressure is on. I have to admit I’m a little jealous, too; Turner has been spending the summer touring Pilgrim sites in England and in Massachusetts! Most of my research has been conducted at my desk or on my couch.
Today is the 200th anniversary of the death of Jane Austen, so it seems like a good time for a post distinguishing the English Jane Austen with the American Jane Goodwin Austin. “It is a truth universally acknowledged” that every article about Jane Austen has to include that phrase somewhere (Sorry, I just couldn’t resist. I was trying to come up with Austin Power jokes, though, so it could have been worse). The English Jane Austen was born in 1775 and published some of the best-known and most critically acclaimed novels in all of literature. Pride and Prejudice (1813) is
But for all of my success stories, I’ve also had a few disappointments. Probably the most disappointing was on my last Plymouth trip, when I couldn’t access the archives at Pilgrim Hall as thoroughly as I wanted to. It might be years before that happens, but I’m pretty sure there’s some good stuff there. I also recently uncovered an archival catalog listing a letter from Loring Henry Austin, Jane’s husband, to Henry David Thoreau, dated 1863. I don’t have anything dating from this period of Jane’s life except one or two short letters to publishers offering manuscripts or pitching story
As much as I love to visit in person, and as vital as it is to my research, though, there are limits to my ability to travel. For the most part, I’ve paid for my own research trips. I had funding from my college and help from the Mayflower Society for my most recent trip, but other than that, I’ve paid for everything else. So I’m learning to use technology in other ways. Another clue from an old book led me on a path to a previously unknown archive in a small public library. That archive never came up in
Now that I’ve made all the “easy” finds, I’m facing the more difficult, and yet more enthralling, task of digging in deeper and finding the materials that aren’t so readily available. Technology has obviously made so many things easier; I would not have been able to accomplish this project 50 years ago. But there is nothing like being in an archive in person, especially when you don’t know what you might uncover. I’m not known for my sparkling conversation at cocktail parties (heck, I don’t even go to cocktail parties), but I can lose myself in a dusty archive and
I grew up reading books like Little Women and Anne of Green Gables, and naturally that fascination led to an interest in the authors of those books. So my research on Austin is a natural fit for a life-long interest. But I didn’t expect to fall in love with archival research, and now I can say that I’m addicted. There is a definite thrill in viewing and reading something that no one has looked at in decades. And when it’s material about someone or something you’re passionate about, there’s a connection there that transcends the ages. Early in my PhD